Friday, December 28, 2012

Oscar Madison, 1922-2012

Within a few days of my imagined lunch with Oscar Madison, the actor who played him, Jack Klugman, passed away on Christmas Eve.

Jack Klugman was the last surviving actor from the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men.  He appeared on 3 episodes of The Twilight Zone.  He won an Emmy Award for a guest role on The Defenders, starred on The Odd Couple for 5 years, and starred on Quincy, M.E. for 7 years.  He lost a vocal chord to throat cancer... and lived another 23 years, and was acting for another 20.

He was married to Brett Somers, who played Oscar's ex-wife Blanche, but they split up during The Odd Couple's run, yet never officially divorced.  They had 2 sons, David and Adam.  It was only after she died that he married his longtime girlfriend, Peggy Crosby, who survives him.

If Oscar was a real person...

(Some of these details are a match for Klugman's details -- for instance, I used Klugman's actual birthdate and birthplace, and made his real first name Oscar's middle name.  Some are based on the show -- including the fact that ex-wife Blanche's last name was Brett's, Somers.  None of it is based on the original play and movie, which had a number of differences, including Felix's job, the spelling of his last name -- Ungar instead of Unger -- and what happened to them after, as both the movie and the TV show had "reunion movies" that were very different.  It's also worth noting that the show had 3 different stories as to how Oscar and Felix, played by Tony Randall, met.)


Oscar Jacob Madison was born on April 27, 1922 in Philadelphia.  He grew up lower middle class in The Bronx, New York, and was a fan of baseball's New York Giants.  Although he barely got through Theodore Roosevelt High School, he read newspapers voraciously.

He got a job as a copyboy at the New York Herald in 1940, hoping to become a sportswriter with the paper.  World War II led to his being drafted, and it was in the U.S. Army that he met Felix Unger, who would thereafter be his best friend, though that friendship would often be strained.  After the war, Oscar went to New York University on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1949, and was hired by the Herald.  He remained with the Herald until the paper folded in 1981, and moved to the Daily News, and remained there until his death.

In 1951, Oscar discovered the signaling system set up at the Polo Grounds that seemed to give the Giants an unfair edge and led them to the National League Pennant.  Although he was a great fan of the club, he felt it was his journalistic duty to report it, but his boss killed the story, for fear of inciting fans of the archrival Brooklyn Dodgers.  Oscar saw the point, but swore he would never compromise his integrity again.

In 1959, he doggedly pursued the story of game-fixing in high school basketball.  This led to him getting his own column.  He soon became one of the most-read sports columnists in New York City, and became nationally known through his appearances on New York-based TV shows like What's My Line (first as a guest, then as an occasional panelist) and Password.

In 1944, while he was in the Army, he married Blanche Somers.  The couple had no children.  They split up on New Year's Eve 1965, after some drunken escapades at their Park Avenue apartment.  Contrary to the oft-told version of the story, she walked out on him, rather than that "Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return."

For the next four years, Oscar lived alone, eating whatever he wanted, throwing his clothes, food, and other trash all over the apartment.  A compulsive gambler, he tended to lose.  His gambling debts interfered with his ability to pay his alimony, and both interfered with his ability to pay his rent.  He was in danger of losing his apartment.

Then, on November 13, 1969, his old friend Felix was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife, Gloria.  Deep down, he knew she was right.  But, he also knew that, one day, he would return to her.

(Note: No, he didn't know.  Throughout the show, it was clear he wanted to return, but his confidence in that was shattered.)

With nowhere else to go, he appeared at Oscar's home.  Oscar took a despondent Felix in, and Felix, with his steady income as a commercial photographer -- portraits a specialty -- began paying half the rent, cleaning up after Oscar, and cooking him some sensible meals.

But Felix's neatness, and his health difficulties (real and imagined), got on Oscar's nerves every bit as much as Oscar's sloppiness, and the other unpleasant aspects of his lifestyle, got on Felix's.  It was odd enough in the early 1970s -- even in liberal New York, called "Fun City" by the Mayor at the time, John Lindsay -- that two divorced, middle-aged men would share an apartment; it seems that they could not do so without driving each other crazy.

For a time, the two men dated a pair of sisters who lived in the same building, Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon.  Sometime thereafter, Oscar picked up a long-term girlfriend, a doctor named Nancy Cunningham.  Felix also began a long-term relationship, with a woman named Miriam Welby, who also lived in their building.

The roommates enjoyed playing poker, and had a regular game at their apartment.  But that was about all they had in common.  Oscar's tastes were decidedly lowbrow, enjoying sports and silly humor; while Felix was highbrow, preferring classical music, especially opera, and "legitimate theater." Oscar was comfortable wearing anything, often walking around the apartment in a sweatsuit, or a bathrobe, and often wearing a New York Mets cap, once the Giants and Dodgers left in 1957 and the Mets arrived in 1962 -- no self-respecting Giants or Dodgers fan would ever have switched to the Yankees.  Felix was a clothes horse, and somehow managed to look elegant even when wearing short sleeves, and managing to make the wildly-colored jackets and shirts of the early 1970s look great.

On two occasions, they appeared together on game shows: On Password in 1972, in which Felix's odd play cost them the game; and on Let's Make a Deal in 1973, in which they showed up on costume as a horse, with Felix as the head and Oscar, perhaps appropriately, as, well, you know... Password host Allen Ludden was a big fan of Oscar's, and Let's Make a Deal host Monty Hall was friends with both of them.

Oscar also had a memorably bad trial as a substitute broadcaster on a 1974 preseason broadcast of ABC's Monday Night Football, with the New York Jets, whom he usually covered, visiting Cincinnati to play the Bengals.  He tried to banter with Howard Cosell, with whom he'd occasionally feuded, and ended up getting shredded by his fellow bigmouthed New Yorker.

On July 4, 1975, in a ceremony in the apartment, Felix and Gloria remarried, and Felix moved back in with her.  From that time onward, Oscar lived alone -- with the exception of a two-week period in 1993, when, shortly after recovering from surgery for throat cancer, Felix moved back in.  He did so partly because he thought Oscar, who had lost a vocal chord to the cigars that he loved, needed help; and partly because, as Felix's daughter Edna was about to get married, Felix was driving everyone crazy with the preparations, and Gloria kicked him out again.  Once Edna was married and Oscar was back on his feet, Gloria took Felix back.

Oscar never lost his touch.  Even past his 90th birthday, he still managed to crank out a newspaper column once a week, using a manual typewriter.  He never switched to a computer.  "What do I need a word processor for?" he once yelled.  "I can process my own words!" (To which Felix added, "I'll say.")

Felix died in 2004 after heart surgery.  He was 84, and was probably as shocked as anyone that Oscar was still alive at age 82.  Oscar died last week, his lifestyle finally catching up with him at 90.  Toward the end, since Oscar had no children, and his only sibling, a brother, had died years earlier, Dr. Cunningham returned to his side as his caretaker.

In the minutes before his death, Oscar began rambling incoherently.  Nancy wrote down his last words, but they didn't seem to make any sense:

"He wants me to use a coaster... Rings, rings, rings... "

"He doesn't like pits, pits, pits, in his juice, juice, juice... "

"Felix, Felix, Felix... "

"The honking... the honking... "

Although he had no living relatives, Oscar Madison will be missed by his millions of readers.  He was one of a kind.

No matter what Walter Matthau (were he still alive), Demond Wilson or Rita Moreno might say.

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